Wanna Buy an Art Deco Gem? Ask AIG

March 20th, 2009 · 11 Comments · Explore New York

When corporate kingdoms fall, they often lose their castles. That may well be the case with AIG. The bailout-dependent conglomerate that has made “bonus rage” a media catchphrase said Wednesday that it’s considering the sale of its legendary 66-story headquarters at 70 Pine Street in Lower Manhattan, Bloomberg confirmed. Like other assets that the American International Group is divesting itself of, this one would almost surely reap a far lower sales price in this depressed market than a couple of years ago.

Yet any price decline isn’t saying a thing about what an architectural and historical treasure this building is. The American International Building, if you have never checked it out or been inside, is one of the most dazzling Art Deco skyscrapers in New York, with an interesting pedigree. Completed in 1932, when the skyline around it wasn’t packed with towers, it stood out as the tallest building in Lower Manhattan and it was then the third tallest in the world. It’s known as one of the last great skyscrapers of the Jazz Age, the exuberant time after World War I during which Art Deco flourished.

Today, one thinks of Texas, the Gulf Coast, or the Middle East as the center of the oil industry, but not in those days. Henry Doherty, an oilman, founded the Cities Service Company in 1910. It became a highly profitable oil, gas, and electricity producer and supplier. Doherty, also a real estate developer, built the company’s headquarters in the prestigious heart of New York’s Financial District.

Clinton & Russell and Holton & George were the architects. Doherty had bought an older building on Wall Street, and he linked it with the 950-foot-tall Pine Street tower via a pedestrian bridge so that he could maintain a Wall Street address. The Cities Service triangle-centered symbol is in stone in numerous places on the skyscraper exterior.

Enter AIG

By New York’s crime-ridden, tough times of the 1970s, some major corporations were heading elsewhere. In 1974, Cities Service, which later became Citgo, left New York for Tulsa, Okla. Two years later it sold its headquarters to AIG, a growing global insurance corporation, which has been there for 33 years.

Full disclosure: I spent some time inside the AIG headquarters in Manhattan during the 1990s, when I conducted historical research and interviews for an AIG-commissioned company history being written by former Fortune magazine and Time Inc. journalist Walter Guzzardi Jr. The company history project ended badly, according to Guzzardi in a Columbia Journalism Review article. Guzzardi died in 2002.

This skyscraper, the headquarters for just two major companies over its 77-year existence, is an elegant, slender Art Deco feast that’s well worth checking out. The soaring skyscraper is one of undulating vertical lines characteristic of that time period. I’m one of those people who look at its sequence of setbacks as if my eyes are enjoying a cascading waterfall. It’s one way that buildings have rhythm and grace.

The brick and limestone of the AIG tower are punctuated by delicate silver metal railings that contain Art Deco abstract patterns. Beyond that, the skyscraper’s best features are at the top and at the base. At the Gothic tower-style top, it has a jewel box-like glass cube rimmed in silver metal. Lit at night, it absolutely draws the eyes among Lower Manhattan’s towers, where it now stands tallest again since the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001. The top contains an observatory, with windows on all sides and corner balconies.

Zigzags and Butterflies

At the base, the AIG building’s carved stonework and ornament is another mixture of beautiful Art Deco decoration. Above the doors, on both the interior and the exterior, are slender silver elements in the shapes of flowers, with silver butterflies on each side of them. (How much I would love detail like this on today’s skyscrapers.) If one wants proof that Doherty took pride in his accomplishment, look no further than the two three-dimensional stone-carved models of the entire building that are at the Pine and Cedar street entrances.

The lobby, which has very watchful guards but also a café where I grabbed a bite of lunch, has silver metal grillwork in varied geometric patterns, rich creamy-brown wood, and elevator doors with geometric shapes and mythic figures.

The building has been known for some ingenious features, too. It had a double-decker elevator, for example, which served two floors at once, according to the AIA Guide to New York City. It was the first use of such elevators. The double-deckers never quite caught on, and they are no longer in use here, the guide notes.

Its rooftop observatory is reputed to be gorgeous inside and has an amazing view. While it was owned by Cities Service, the building’s observation tower was open to the public. The 1930s WPA Guide to New York City noted that it was open weekdays; admission was 40 cents for adults; children under age 8, free. It has been closed for some time. At least one blogger, of NewYorkology, has urged AIG – now that taxpayers have a big stake in it – to reopen the observatory to all.

Perhaps, if AIG sells the building, the new owners will open the observatory to those who want yet another amazing skyscraper-top view of New York. It could happen, as they say, but I bet it will cost more than 40 cents.

The AIG Building: A Further Look

The blog Art Deco Buildings offers wonderful photos of the American International Building, which show an Art Deco light fixture, the silver butterflies, and one of the 3-D models of the building above an entrance. The blog A Year in Manhattan provides views of the AIG building’s details, both interior and exterior . This New York Architecture page offers a photo (scroll down) of the interior of the AIG observatory.

Update: In August 2009, Youngwoo & Associates purchased the AIG skyscraper at 70 Pine Street and the neighboring building at 72 Pine Street for a reported $150 million, according to The Real Deal, which called the price “shockingly low.” Best’s Review, the monthly insurance magazine, noted that the Korean developers plan to convert the top 40 floors into luxury condos and the bottom floors into retail space.

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11 Comments so far ↓

  • David Thompson

    I enjoyed reading this a lot. I’d seen some of the news reports but hadn’t been able to work out exactly which building it was until I read this.

    My favourite part is the model of the towers built into the decoration above the entrance.

    How good would it be if a new owner did re-open the observation deck!!!

  • Susan DeMark

    David,

    I’m very glad you enjoyed it! Those models are wonderful. I’d say the butterflies are my favorite part.

    Call me a dreamer, but I believe it’s possible that one day the observation room could be open to the public. Wouldn’t that be something?

    Thanks!

    Susan

  • George Hathaway

    I have been to the observatory many times and it is spectacular inside and the view is even better. The 6 person elevator goes up through the floor. The balconies are lovely in nice weather.

    A note on the lobby decorations. The elevator trim and doors still have the Cities Service motif. The logo surrounds the elevator lights and energy related symbols are on the doors. The walls and floor are all highly polished marble.

    There used to be escalators that took one to the first 6 floors but these have been been removed. Some of the floors have steps where the escalators were. Trim above the first floor is minimal until you get to 60. 60 and above are executive offices and dining rooms with the observatory at the top. All are very nice.

    It is a shame that AIG is selling the building since it is such an icon. Its picture is prominent in much of the overseas advertising.

    The building at 175 Water Street (the one always appearing in the television reports) is much newer and I guess more efficient. The companies used to fill both buildings and they haven’t lost very many employees. If they sell it I wonder where the current employee occupants will go. One supposes a concrete blockhouse in Brooklyn would be appropriate.

    gh

  • Susan DeMark

    gh,

    It’s excellent to get such great description of the surroundings and the experience of the observatory. I can almost picture it. You can tell from your description how much you have appreciated the building at 70 Pine.

    Yes, that Cities Service motif is ubiquitous. A fellow blogger recently told me he still refers to it as the Cities Service building. We come to know buildings in our own ways.

    Also appreciate your inside view of what this gem of a building is like above floor 60.

    It will be very, very interesting to see what AIG does concerning the headquarters, and if they follow through with a sale, who purchases it. I am certainly going to follow up on this story.

    I also have to laugh out loud at your observation that a “concrete blockhouse in Brooklyn” might be appropriate for some, though I suppose the employees who have performed solidly and ethically and have no place in this company’s downfall shouldn’t share in such a fate.

    Thanks for adding so much to the experience of the building!

    Best,
    Susan

  • Marjorie Backman

    Thanks for bringing this Art Deco building to my attention. Let’s see whether it gets put up for sale. A recent article (nytimes.com
    /2009/04/15/nyregion/15develop.html) said the downtown NYC office vacancy rate might rise from 11.7 percent now to 16 percent.

  • Susan DeMark

    Marjorie,

    You’re welcome. It is quite an Art Deco building.

    Interesting article from the Times, and yes, at the very least AIG would be unloading this building at a terrible time. The financial-services industry’s troubles spell bad news for Lower Manhattan’s commercial real estate.

    The article you cited notes that the current plans for the redevelopment of Ground Zero call for Larry Silverstein to add three huge skyscrapers — 7.57 million square feet of commercial space — by 2013. (I think of this in terms of regional mall size, about 1 million square feet, give or take…so that’s more than 7 regional malls!) Talks are underway about the exact timing of these towers, given the declining commercial real estate market. It’s a massive amount of space for the market to swallow.

    I’m keeping an eye on what AIG plans to do, and I’ll post an update when something major happens with this Pine Street building.

    Thanks,
    Susan

  • Visitor

    I have a recollection from 1980. I was working for a commercial brokerage firm and was assigned 70 Pine to “canvass” the building – to walk through the building and make a list of who was on what floor, etc. I was new in the business, and my first assignment had been to canvass the World Trade Center – 70 Pine came a bit later.

    I recall quite vividly going up to a high floor and taking a small elevator. I also recall someone who I much later recognized from pictures as Hank Greenberg on the floor that got me to the small elevator. I guess he and others thought I was a building inspector or something.

    My recollection here is a bit fuzzy. I think that I went from a glass-enclosed area up a small staircase, which took me to a very small area – here I think, but my memory could be false – I think this area was not glass-enclosed.

    There was a small round table. I recall a dull-finish metal, maybe zinc, but possibly an aluminum alloy that was weathered. I’m not that keen on heights and remember not particularly enjoying being there, but do recall that it was a very private aerie.

    I wonder if anyone out there could tell me whether they’ve seen that table. My recollection was that it had a globe or maybe a compass that was inscribed/etched/engraved into the surface. If someone has been in that same place it would be interesting to know whether the perch was glass-enclosed around 1980.

    A curiosity. Found your site because I was hoping that I would uncover an image of whatever I saw.

  • John D. Goodspeed

    I live at the top of 20 Exchange Place with a perfect view of Cities Service / AIG out of my living room and bedroom windows.

    I have fallen in love with 70 Pine Street. It is an architectural wonder, so many fine details, I take pictures of it at different times during the day, ever changing. At the moment the AIG skyscraper is my favorite in downtown, followed by 20 Exchange.

    I read that this beautiful skyscraper sold for a mere $100 million this past summer to a South Korean investor group. They should not have been forced to sell this priceless gem of Americana; this did not serve the taxpayers well.

  • Susan DeMark

    John,

    Yours is an elegant testimony to the beauty and significance of the skyscraper at 70 Pine Street. Like you, I have fallen in love with the building. But for you, as a neighbor, your experience of it is so much more firsthand, a part of your daily life.

    The building in which you live is another beauty, and I’ll have to write about it in some fashion in the near-future. Those views must be jaw-droppingly beautiful!

    I agree wholeheartedly with your statement that what I would call AIG’s “fire sale” of the building is not a good thing, and it doesn’t serve the taxpayers well.

    Thanks for sharing such a firsthand experience of the AIG building. I plan to definitely follow up on what will occur with this gem, and I know preservationists and concerned citizens want to make sure this skyscraper is protected.

    Susan

    • bobby lackey

      Remember becoming a big fan of 70 Pine Street in the early 1950′s when riding the subway across the East River & sitting with my folks as I kept my eyes on the building at sundown. I was watching when the “green” lights popped on. Back then, the building was green at night. Maybe some white mixed in, too.

      When I finally was able to find out the name of the building in a book, it said “Cities Service or 60 Wall Street Building”. 60 Wall Street was used in other places years ago.

      Does anyone know why that address was used?

      In the 1960′s when I was old enough to go out by myself, I went down to the building but could not go up to the top. It was either closed or not available at that time for the public.

      But boy did I spend a lot of time on top of the Empire State & RCA buildings. And later, 2 World Trade. The highlight for me of 2 World Trade was looking down at 70 Pine.

      Has anyone seen the video on YouTube? Just under the Spire, the lights are “red”. First time I have noticed that.

      Bobby

      • Susan DeMark

        Bobby,

        What a vivid memory of seeing 70 Pine Street from the subway and then later looking down on it from 2 World Trade. Those memories really make it clear how this skyscraper and its top draw one’s eyes and have such captivating qualities from different angles and at various times (like seeing it at sundown).

        I don’t know that I have heard that much about the “60 Wall Street Building” though I seem to recall that reference. I will do some poking around to research that. (The current address of 60 Wall Street is the U.S. headquarters of Deutsche Bank, built in the 1980s.)

        I did not see the YouTube video on 70 Pine and will check that out, too.

        Your recollections definitely are that of someone who appreciates New York’s amazing skyscrapers such as 70 Pine.

        Gratefully,
        Susan

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